Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The New York Times sinks to a new low...

...and it has nothing to do with their typically first-rate reporting.

The New York Times "store" is selling "game-used dirt" from all 30 Major League ball parks for $249. It comes with a letter of authenticity. Hmmm. Game used? How could it not be game used? Oh, I get it. Dirt that the groundskeeper would use to fill in infield divots after the season ends would not be game used? Gee. The Times has really sunk to a disgusting level here. Shame on the Good Gray Lady. Anybody who buys this item thinking it's an "investment" must be incredibly dense, desperate for a holiday gift idea, filthy rich, or a combination of the three. Trust me, $249 for this is not dirt cheap (pardon the creaky metaphor).

The Times, of course, is doing nothing illegal but it is certainly near the bottom of the morality trough. Defenders of this practice will say that the newspaper company is merely trying to extend its brand and make some money because its core business is going down the tubes. But selling futures in a piece of "memorabilia" like this is akin to a Wall Street firm pushing a penny stock on pure faith.

In 1991 I co-authored a book on baseball cards and collectibles, and one of the first things I learned was that a "manufactured antique" was not just an oxymoron, but something of a legal scam. And the letters of authenticity are just another part of the con. If you can fake a signature (hundreds of Joe DiMaggio autographed balls were thought to be sold by a ghost-signer while I was researching the book), you can certainly fake a letter of authenticity. In fact, it's much easier to do.

For years Mickey Mantle had Pete Sheehy, the Yankees clubhouse attendant, sign boxes of baseballs when he was too hung over to do it himself. Later, when Mantle's signature became a real commodity (meaning he was actively selling them at sports memorabilia shows), he signed the balls legitimately, but he also autographed so many that he effectively devalued his John Hancock. If everyone who had a Mantle-signed ball decided to put them up for auction tomorrow on eBay, the market value would drop to less than it costs to buy a clean white official ball at a sporting goods store.

Just think, in a hundred years, who's going to care whether you own dirt from every single ball park in the Major Leagues? Maybe only the person who dreamed up such a low-class idea.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Robocalls bothering you? Wait till you hear this...

And you thought Congress was doing nothing....

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and I'm already in a bad mood. In fact, I'm pissed off because I've just read about the proposed Mobile Information Call Act of 2011. Briefly, if adopted, it will allow telemarketers to make robocalls to your cell phone (now illegal, with supposedly harsh fines and penalties from the FCC, but you know what that means...).

The industry lobby is complaining that people have given up their landlines and mainly communicate with their cells. No kidding. They're claiming that "important" messages can be conveyed quickly and easily -- flight cancellations and delays, emergency information during power outages, etc. Hah! This is a fantasy, and we all know it.

If this passes, your cell will be inundated with recorded voices. You will be annoyed beyond belief. You will hate your cell phone and want to throw it away. You will be embarrassed in a public setting when you've forgotten to turn off your ring tone and it's an "important" call from an automated voice telling you how to lower your credit card debt. The "Do Not Call Registry" has been a complete failure due to non-compliance, so expect this Act to really get you crazy.

The sponsors of this bill are Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, and Edolphus Towns, a Brooklyn Democrat. in the last election cycle, Terry's biggest campaign contribution comes from the "telephone services and equipment" industry, with Qwest Communications at the top of the list. Towns got money from every industry I could think of, so he's just trying to make a blanket quid pro quo. Terry is just plainly, transparently, a slut.

If this Act gets passed, I will find his cell phone number and call him every day during dinner hour for the next year. Please do the same.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The "Occupy PNC Park" movement is growing...

Some 1,500 demonstrators began a sit-in late last evening at PNC Park, calling for the Pittsburgh baseball franchise to change its name from the Pirates to the "Adventurers." Most of the people, who brought tents and sleeping bags -- an overt homage to the Occupy Wall Street protest -- were either self-proclaimed "real" pirates or dressed in pirate garb. Oddly, nobody seemed to mind that the naming rights to the park -- now in its twelfth season -- were won by a large financial services firm.

The group was hastily organized by a pirate who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. "Our group, the International Pirates Association, is offended by the continuing denigrating depiction of our membership," he said, reading from a prepared statement. He said that such a terrible team had given a bad name to a group of people that have been misunderstood for hundreds of years. "Real pirates are Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp," he said. "In fact, I heard Depp can actually hit some and play a pretty good second base, but I won't go there for now."

The IPA, it should be noted, has made millions in Super PAC donations to every political candidate except for Ron Paul, who does not like baseball.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl appeared with a bullhorn, saying that he sympathized with the pirates' demands, and would allow the protesters to stay encamped in the PNC parking lot, "at least until the Pirates win their next ball game."

The IPA had been quietly petitioning Pittsburgh management to change its name for the past two seasons, but negotiations came to a halt when management suggested a compromise name -- the Pittsburgh Swashbucklers. This was rejected by the lobby as sort of candy-assed, contending that the organization's constituents neither "swashed" nor "buckled." And the "Buccaneers" name was already taken. One protester said, "We think 'Adventurer' is politically correct and absolutely appropriate for a 72-90 team that appears to be having an adventure every time it takes the field."

Other pirates milling around the tents admitted that they were "there for the party, and didn't really care" what they called the team any more. "Hey, I've never seen such a large gathering of eye patches and peg-legs," said one reveler whose hip flask was filled with -- what else? -- rum. Not to mention all the parrots.

In a CNN interview Mayor Ravenstahl admitted that the pirate protesters were actually welcome to the city, giving Pittsburgh some much-needed economic stimulus. "We'd prefer a TARP-style rescue, but you have to be thankful for whatever you can get."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Think America can't manage its money? Read this

Stupid and stupider. That's us.

According to a study at Brown University, the total cost of the war on terror, including our forays into Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have run to between $3.2 and $4 trillion. All right, let's just say that the estimates were way too high. I'll leave my liberal instincts behind on this and admit that we need a strong military no matter what. So we would've spent gobs of cash just fielding an army even without invading/rescuing foreign nations. Let's say for the sake of arriving at a reasonable figure that the Brown report overestimated by half. Let's just call it an even $2 trillion to be safe.

Now think about two things: the TARP bailouts of the banks and the auto companies. It was expected to run to $700 billion, but it was far less since the troubled assets actually repaid yours and my generous loans. We are still comfortably under a trillion dollars, anyway you do the math. Still real money, I admit, but nowhere near what it costs to trudge around the Middle East for a decade or so in the name of making the world safe for democracy.

Now, let's talk about what's going on today in the European economy. Greece is a mess; every day I wonder when they will begin selling the Parthenon to the Chinese (not a bad idea, really) to keep from going under. But what's more troubling is that Italy's bond market has gone to 7 percent, indicating that the domino theory of the ever shaky European economy is spreading throughout the continent. My guess is that Spain will be next. Unemployment there is twice what it is in the U.S. -- yes, folks, near-Depression level at 20 percent. Who's willing to argue that Spain's finances are not also in peril?

The U.S.-European economy is joined together at the hip. No need to explain that. Greece, Italy, Spain and the other European Union member nations generated 20 percent of the world's GDP in 2010. As the U.S. goes, so goes Europe. As the U.S. and Europe goes, so goes the rest of the free world.

Like it or not, one way or another, the American taxpayer is going to be on the hook for the European economic crisis. That's one reason the stock market is bouncing up and down like a Spaldeen every other day.

So my modest proposal is this: what if we still had some of the money -- say just half of what it cost, a trillion bucks -- that we blew in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and used it for a TARP-like bailout of the European countries now in distress? If the U.S. could get 7 percent on its loans to help our allies, I could live with that kind of risk. Couldn't you?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Phone companies: the scum also rises

Remember when you were a child? One phone company, Ma Bell, a regulated monopoly, supplied the entire nation. Long distance calls cost a fortune, but at least you could understand the bill. We always had the simple black wall or desk phones; made by Western Electric and owned by a much kinder and gentler AT&T. The phones were indestructible. You could throw a major hissy fit and barely dent them. My friends whose families had more means than we did sported phones with colors that matched the decor; the girls had those little Princess handsets that lit up.

Today, I get so many bills with so many extras, it gets me nuts every time I open an envelope. Verizon once charged my business phone for 18 months on an account that I had switched. I failed to notice (yeah, how could I?). Try getting someone to actually answer a phone at a phone company. You'd think they were in the business of communication. They made it incredibly difficult to get a refund because they couldn't find the account (they had switched software, heh, heh, for want of a better explanation and thought I'd been scammed by someone) Still, they cashed my checks regularly. It took months to sort out.

But AT&T and T-Mobile, especially in the wireless domain, are equally frustrating and awful to deal with. T-Mobile is only good in Europe. The reception in the U.S. is still spotty after all this time, and the sales reps know it. The thing that really gets in my craw about AT&T are their collection measures. First of all, they're billing you in advance for the monthly service part. So they get to use your money before you actually pick up and dial (or rather press buttons). If you're even a few days late, you get a "final disconnect notice." Once I called them (a ridiculous waste of time, I now know) and said, "Hey, I never received a first disconnect notice." They replied that they don't have one. They go right to the final to make sure they get your attention.

As for their mobile service, AT&T will barrage you with text messages and voice mails telling you that they have an urgent issue to talk to you about. This urgency involves your being one or two days past due. I hadn't figured this out until one month my son (who is part of a three-line plan) called me and said, "Um, Dad, our service has been disconnected...did you pay the bill?"

As for dropped calls, that would take another blog.